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Campaign against FGM exposes how differently we view our own obsessions

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 22:15
Are we being two-faced?Shutterstock

Both forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) are deemed to be human rights issues, and as such, should be universally applied. From such a viewpoint, they are simply wrong – legally and morally – and where they involve children or minors, they are a form of child abuse.

That so much attention is now being placed on FGM and forced marriage is good news. But we cannot escape the possibility that there is a certain level of hypocrisy in the UK government’s drive. For one thing, child marriage is still, technically, legal in the UK; the minimum age to enter into a marriage in England and Wales is 16 and in the eyes of the law, at this age you are still considered a child. This is why if you want to marry at this age you need parental consent. So while the government champions the end of child marriage abroad, it actually remains legal for children between 16 and 18 to marry in the UK, under certain conditions.

The government has also highlighted the issue of forced marriage, which is often a complex one. For instance, arranged and forced marriage are sometimes conflated because it can be difficult to separate the two, given the family pressures that some girls are placed under. Most Westerners find “arranged” marriage difficult to comprehend, brought up in a culture which deems romantic love and choice of partner the paramount criteria for marriage. Yet it is crucial that we preserve the distinction between something that is arranged, to which the parties consent willingly, and a marriage which is imposed, most usually on girls but sometimes also on boys.

As an anthropologist who has lived and worked for many years in India where arranged marriages are the norm, I am aware that they can often be highly affectionate. People there often say “love comes after marriage, not before”, while the divorce rates in the West show that romantic love is not always forever.

Another point of hypocrisy is the idea that “we” would never carry out FGM. Yet clitoridectomy was practised in 19th and early 20th-century Britain and America as a way of reducing female masturbation, hysteria and mental illness. Genital surgery is arguably also still being conducted, albeit in somewhat different forms and because of different societal pressures, by plastic surgeons up and down the country.

Cultural relativism

FGM was first outlawed in the UK in 1985. The act that brought this into force has since been followed up by other pieces of legislation including the Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2003. Yet despite being illegal for almost 30 years, there have been very few prosecutionsone to be exact.

On the whole, the attitude of officialdom has been to turn a blind eye to FGM practises on the grounds that they are part of particular cultures and identity. In comparison, in France, where FGM is also illegal, authorities have been much more robust, and around 100 convictions have been achieved. In the UK, it is thought all too often that condemning these acts carries the risk of a charge of racism, resulting in a widespread position of cultural relativism, which says: “It’s their culture, isn’t it?” Such a stance applies not only to FGM but to other cultural practises around women’s rights.

However, while such a concern appears to have been fairly pervasive among social workers, teachers, medical staff and even the police, this attitude now appears to be increasingly deemed unacceptable, as well as unlawful, in.

Humans are often quick to spot and condemn differences in others. It’s a way of saying who “we” are by highlighting what others do differently, in other words of constructing social boundaries.

So when it comes to FGM, “we do not practise it” is a good example of this boundary making. But it might be salutary to reflect that we used to and that we might still do in different ways.

A shift in perspective

If Victorian culture repressed sexuality, especially female sexuality, modern culture is saturated with it and women today suffer considerable anxiety about their bodies. So now we find plastic surgery being used to “improve” women’s genitalia. Curiously (or not, depending on your viewpoint) the World Health Organisation does not include cosmetic procedures such as labiaplasty (reduction of the inner labia), vaginoplasty (tightening of the vaginal muscles) and clitoral hood reduction as examples of FGM.

Accordingly, it can be argued that there is a double standard here, with girls and women subject to FGM being viewed always as victims, while Western women seeking cosmetic genital surgery – so-called “designer vaginas” – are exercising their right to control their own bodies. In both instances, there are considerable societal pressures to conform to a particular standard of bodily acceptability.

While both national and international law view FGM as a form of violence against girls and women, one cannot help wondering why other forms get less discussion in the UK: domestic violence remains a major problem and there are few convictions, while rape and sexual assault are also prevalent but few perpetrators – here and the US, for example – are found guilty and punished.

So while we may wish to support policies which aim to rid the UK of practices which affect girls and women negatively and which are deemed both unacceptable and illegal, we must ask why have these particular ones been picked out by the government? Is it a way of “othering” different cultures, and deflecting attention away from the hard work that still needs to be done to achieve gender equality in the UK?

Pat Caplan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

If you're a kid in detention, a date is everything

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 21:42

Scott Morrison is trying to manage the politics of children in detention. AAP/Nikki Short

Scott Morrison’s release of more children from detention is selective, and the timing of his announcement has a distinctly political flavour to it.

The decision applies to about 150 children under ten years old, who will be out by Christmas, but not to the several hundred more who arrived from July 19 last year, when Kevin Rudd made his announcement that all asylum seekers would be sent offshore. To let those out would undermine the government’s deterrence policy, Morrison says.

There are currently 876 children in detention, including on Nauru. This is 516 fewer than at the election. At the end of July there were 148 on Christmas Island.

Morrison says the government has progressively released children, and blames Labor for the slowness, on the grounds fresh arrangements for bridging visas had to be made. “Labor’s arrangements for bridging visas were insufficient to protect and support young children.”

The timing is pointed, coming days before Morrison appears at the Human Rights Commission inquiry into children in immigration detention, which reports to parliament in mid-September. Morrison says he’s been working on the plan for months. When he was asked whether this announcement was about “trying to improve your image before you front the Human Rights Commission” he replied: “That is a pretty cynical question”.

Cynical question or not, the minister no doubt wanted to have some positive news out, though one would imagine, given earlier evidence from doctors about the bad conditions to which children have been subjected and the fact there is no release for many, that he might be in for some stern interrogation when he appears on Friday.

Like most other stages of the asylum debate, the Abbott government is reliving Howard government experience in relation to children in detention.

But Howard’s hand on children was forced especially by the moderates on his backbench. These days, the Liberal moderate voices are silent. At least the Human Rights Commission inquiry has had some public impact.

While Morrison is trying to manage the politics of children in detention, he is also at work to finalise an agreement – of which Australia should be ashamed – that would send people from Nauru to Cambodia.

Alastair Nicholson, chair of Children’s Rights International and a former chief justice of the Family Court, who is very familiar with Cambodia, on Monday made the compelling case against this scheme.

“The concept of Australia sending people who are in need of refuge to a country like that is almost indescribably bad as policy,” he told the ABC’s Lateline.

It would be especially bad for unaccompanied minors, he said (although it is not known whether there would be any of these among the people sent).

“I don’t believe that asylum seekers or anyone else gets very much protection from the law in Cambodia … It’s one of the poorest countries you would find in southeast Asia … It’s just the worst sort of place from the point of view of sending asylum seekers, and particularly asylum seekers who don’t have any cultural or other ties to the country.”

We still know little about the Cambodian arrangement. Morrison’s claim on Tuesday that “we’ve made no secret of the fact that we’re in these discussions with Cambodia” is a stretch. The first information came from the Cambodians, as has most that followed. The Australian government reportedly pressed (not very successfully) on Cambodian officialdom a desire for confidentiality.

As Nicholson said: “We’re never told anything about what the minister’s doing – that’s part of the problem, really. And once it’s done, there’s very little that can be done about it.”

We have got used to the Morrison style of secrecy.

For example when he kept a boatload of asylum seekers on the ocean for weeks, refusing to say where they were. His declining to talk about “on water” matters became a matter for ridicule as well as concern.

The reality of what’s done behind the scenes in border protection policy can be much at odds with the gestures.

Guardian Australia is reporting emails obtained under freedom of information showing the immigration department’s efforts to repatriate (voluntarily) Syrians from Manus and Nauru earlier this year.

This week Morrison said 4400 places would be reserved in the (existing) refugee program for Syrians and Iraqis. The government wanted to be seen to be doing something in line with Tony Abbott’s strong rhetoric about the crisis in Iraq.

A disconnect? One would think so. As there will be between the fates of children, depending on whether they arrived before or after a particular date.

POSTCRIPT: It is reported from PNG that police have charged two men over the murder of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati, killed during the Manus Island riots in February. The men are said to have worked for G4S, the company that managed security at the time. One was arrested in July and the other this week.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Chinese let fly at Palmer

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 21:32
Clive Palmer's televised tirade has unleashed a torrent of criticism from across the political spectrum.AAP/Lukas Coch

The Chinese embassy lashed out at Clive Palmer’s extraordinary attack on Chinese “mongrels” and “bastards”, as a PUP senator went further than her leader, suggesting they might invade Australia.

Palmer’s outburst on ABC’s Q&A – in response to questioning about whether he used funds from Chinese state-owned company Citic Pacific for his election campaign – unleashed a torrent of criticism of him from across the political spectrum.

Palmer, who has been in bitter dispute with the company, said on Monday night: “We’ve had three [court] judgments … against these Chinese mongrels.” They were communists, “shoot their own people” and “want to take over this country and we’re not going to let them do it”.

The Chinese embassy said Palmer’s attack was “full of ignorance and prejudice”, and absurd and irresponsible.

As he came under general fire, Palmer on Twitter tried to cast his words into a more narrow context. “My ‪#qanda comments not intended to refer to Chinese people but to Chinese company which is taking Australian resources & not paying.”

But PUP senator Jacqui Lambie said: “If anybody thinks that we should have a national security and defence policy which ignores the threat of a Chinese Communist invasion – you’re delusional and got rocks in your head.

“We need to double the size and capacity of our military right now,” she said, raising the spectre of “our grandchildren … becoming slaves to an aggressive, anti-democratic, totalitarian foreign power”.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the Palmer comments were unacceptable for a member of Parliament and she planned to contact the Chinese embassy.

Treasurer Joe Hockey said while Palmer was in legal dispute with his Chinese partners, “I’d say to Mr Palmer, please do not bring down the rest of Australia because of your biases”.

Hockey said it was “hugely damaging” for Palmer to make such an attack. The Chinese were “our biggest trading partner, they buy a lot of our produce, and in doing so they help to lift the quality of life for everyday Australians.”

West Australian premier Colin Barnett, who has previously hit out at Palmer over his feud with the Chinese company, said his remarks were “appalling”, “racist” and very damaging to the Australia-China relationship.

Barnett said the company had paid its royalties in full and on time and Palmer was talking about its payment to him. Palmer was probably driven by greed, the premier said.

Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen said that “it’s important that while we all engage in proper free speech and debate that we treat Chinese companies and individuals and government with respect”.

But WA PUP senator Dio Wang, who was born in China, defended his leader. “Having more than once given an appropriate answer to the questions put to him, Mr Palmer naturally reacted and used expressions that were subsequently taken out of context.”

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Why conspiracy theorists won't give up on MH17 and MH370

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 20:11
Was it the Illuminati?EPA

A huge criminal investigation is underway in the Netherlands, following the downing of flight MH17. Ten Dutch prosecutors and 200 policemen are involved in collecting evidence to present at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The investigation may take time to find the real perpetrators, but that hasn’t stopped conspiracy theorists from speculating.

Human beings are pattern-seeking creatures. We take the raw material from our senses, and shape it into descriptions, theories and predictions. The conspiracies that now surround MH17 and prior to that flight MH370 are an example of the same urge to order.

In the case of MH370, which crashed in the southern Indian Ocean, the disappearance of an airliner with 239 people on board, begs for explanation, and so the theorists step in and start chattering on their blogs.

The speculations around the destruction of MH17 have a slightly different character, perhaps because “the facts” seem to be clearer, and the key agents more obvious. After all, the grammar of any conspiracy theory about an event begins with the “who benefits” question.

Searching for logic

So who would have wanted the second Malaysia Airlines plane to be shot down? The Russians and the Ukrainian rebels don’t have much to gain from being portrayed as the murderers of 298 people. So if there wasn’t an advantage then they wouldn’t have done it, which is where the wheels of conspiracy logic then begin to grind. All the explanations then assume that the guilt of the Russians and their proxies is what “they” want us to believe, but that the truth is more complicated.

The next obvious candidates are the Ukrainian government, attempting to swing international sympathy against the rebels and their supporters. Or, that the Ukrainians were actually trying to kill Vladimir Putin, whose official jet was flying back over Europe at the same time, and bore similar markings to MH17.

Israel is invoked in many conspiracies of course, so there are suggestions that the jet was shot down in order to distract attention from the first day of the offensive in Gaza. Another account then focuses on the fact that there were delegates from a conference about AIDS on board, and hence that they were killed in order to prevent AIDS research from making progress.


The biggest swathe of conspiracies suggests that MH370 and MH17 are actually the same plane. The first plane, they claim, was hijacked and flown somewhere secret to be stored for a while. It was then rigged with explosives, flown over Donestsk and blown up in order to implicate one of the parties. A large amount of evidence about expired passports, parachutes seen descending from the plane, and photos of the damage on parts of the fuselage are all deployed in order to support suggestions as to who might be responsible – the American intelligence agency CIA, organised crime, the Illuminati and so on.

Some of these accounts are offensive, or mad, or both. There are others who are busy claiming that the mad and offensive conspiracies are being disseminated by those who are trying to distract us from seeing “the truth”. Anyone who takes a position on a conspiracy is entangled within it, whether they like or not. And that includes this piece, of course.

As Mel Gibson’s character Jerry Fletcher says in the 1997 movie Conspiracy Theory:

A good conspiracy is unprovable. I mean, if you can prove it, it means they screwed up somewhere along the line.

All conspiracy theorists are not mad

Now Jerry Fletcher might sound crazy, but consider the alternatives. The first would be to say that there are no conspiracies. This is clearly mad, because we know that powerful forces do try to arrange the world for their benefit.

The second gulf of Tonkin incident which justified US involvement in Vietnam was proven to be a fiction, and there is plenty of evidence about “false flag” and similar covert operations activities by everyone from the CIA to the British secret service MI6. Add to that the activities of global elites at Davos and the routine deceit practised by capitalist corporations and you would be naive to believe that the world is what it seems.

The other alternative is less exciting. That would be to say that there are coincidences and mistakes, and that they can shape the world too.

The fact that the two jets just happened to be from the same airline, or that an under-trained, trigger-happy separatist couldn’t recognise a passenger plane, are events which are disqualified within conspiracy thinking.

Their assumption is that there is a logic to events, a pattern to the world, and that stuff doesn’t just happen. It is only in this sense that conspiracy theorists are mad, because most of their reasoning is perfectly sane. The problem is distinguishing the stupid accidents from the cunning plans, and that is something that none of us are terribly good at.

Martin Parker does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

We try to fix too many social problems through exams

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 20:00

Stress mounts as the day nears. Rui Vieira/PA Archive

This year’s GCSE results day is predicted to be “chaos” if recent exam reforms cause large fluctuations in students' grades. Exam boards, teachers and teacher unions are talking of “nervousness”, “turbulence” and “instability” surrounding the results.

All this follows after commentators pored over the recent A Level results, weighing up the minutiae of percentage point changes in pass rates, the number of boys and girls taking this and that subject and who’s going to what university. It seems that every aspect of society can be analysed through exam results – from the state of the economy and jobs, to issues of race, class and sex.

Emotional rollercoaster

If the predictions of chaos are right, we may well get much of the same after the GCSE results are published. But you have to ask: isn’t all this commentary on examinations a little bit excessive? Education is important but it’s not that important.

I overheard a mother last week congratulating her son in the street on his obviously excellent A Level results: “You will achieve so much!” she said, and then added: “I think I am going to cry!” This struck me as a bit melodramatic, if understandable. Exam results are personal things for pupils and their mothers may well have great hopes for them. But the annual national response to exam results now seems to be like a mother’s.

Delight abounds when results are going up and national hopes rise but, if they go down, there is uncertainty and turbulence and national hopes dip with them. We are too involved in our children’s results. It’s time to let go.

Proxy for social problem-solving

A criticism that I and others have made is that recent governments have seen education as the place to engage in social engineering to solve a range of social and political problems. These include everything from radicalisation, obesity, homophobia, smoking, binge drinking, drug taking, criminality, anti-social behaviour and saving the planet.

That strategy, which results from the inability of politicians to resolve those problems in the grown-up world, has led to education being seen as more important than it is. The over-emphasis on qualifications as a way of making the UK more globally competitive does the same thing.

Although all of this may seem sensible to those who are fond of homilies like “the children are our future”, it is really a cop out for adults escaping responsibility by attempting to solve today’s urgent problems through children. The obsession with social engineering may be a face-saving substitute for hapless politicians but it is a destructive force for education.

Stricter curriculum

Education and the examination results that follow from it should be about what a pupil has gained in terms of knowledge and understanding. That’s all. If a pupil does well or badly it is not the beginning or the end of their world, even if it feels as if it is for a while. If UK examination results dip or descend into chaos, it is not the collapse of society as we know it. Just as years of constant improvement in results didn’t make for a better Britain in the past.

Politicians and commentators, who go on and on about aspects of the examination system that reflects their wider social and political concerns, should become more serious about education – then pupils’ examination results will improve as a consequence.

Tinkering with the marks teachers give students for speaking and listening in English, toughening up the geography curriculum, encouraging the take up of traditional subjects and other changes are welcome but they reflect a timid approach to education that disadvantages all children.

A far braver and better approach would be to make a knowledge-based curriculum (separate sciences, modern foreign languages, mathematics, history, English language and literature, geography and even Latin) mandatory in all schools. It is not going to happen. The reforms begun by the former secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, barely scrape the surface.

The first step towards the removal of the current timidity in educational reform would require politicians, education experts and media commentators to stop seeing examination results as the focus of other concerns and get back to the idea that schools and examinations are about individual pupils’ knowledge and understanding and nothing more.

Dennis Hayes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

From the Reef to the RET: the politicisation of environmental science in Australia

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 18:28

AAP/Caroline Berdon

The future of Australia’s climate and respect for environmental science stand to be the biggest losers in all of the forms of class-mobilised politicisation that are impacting Australia currently. Somewhere between the vocation of politics and the vocation of science, Australia has lost its way – to the point where our international standing is seriously on the line.

Sociologist Max Weber argued ‘politics is the art of compromise’, while science is able to deliver societal progress for those who will listen to it. Neither are being achieved in Australia at the moment. The government is perfecting a paradigm for how to lose friends and alienate people, and bases its advice on those who have neither scientific method or credibility. This is a dangerous reductivism.

The revelations on Four Corners last night that the advice of the grandfather of Great Barrier Reef studies, John Veron, and Australia’s leading reef scientists was all but ignored in approving the fine silt dredging at Abbot Point is the latest case in point.

Instead, the entire process was politicised by parachuting in a coal mining-compliant bureaucrat from Canberra, Bruce Elliot. Yes, the stringent protections are supposed to be there, but they were also purported to be there in Gladstone – and Four Corners made it very plain to see what happened there.

The reef case has parallels with taking advice from Maurice Newman on climate policy. Newman has pursed his own personal crusade against climate science for many years now and it would be difficult to discount him as the key lobbyist who has been pushing for the abolition of the renewable energy target (RET).

As with global warming, so it is with the RET. All the evidence available shows that abolishing the RET would be really bad for electricity prices. But presumably because it is a direct threat to the profitability of energy providers, Abbott has sent back Dick Warburton’s report with the message: get rid of the RET altogether. Whereas retaining the RET is the best policy an “infrastructure prime minister” could give us.

Here, the imprecise science of the economist is to be massaged to achieve a myopic political own goal that is not only not in the interest of Australia’s climate welfare, but not even in the interests of the government’s political welfare. As with repealing the carbon tax, it will soon come back to bite the government, when electricity prices do go up.

Even the Daily Telegraph, which has long campaigned against renewables, is reporting on the most recent study that shows the impact of revoking the RET on hip-pockets. Whereas the ‘carbon tax’ was redistributing wealth back to the budget with no impact on electricity prices, removing the RET will actually accelerate the increase in those prices, very significantly.

But then, the war on the RET is looking even more suicidal when it is considered that the Palmer United Party has made it clear that it won’t be joining Abbott and the government under any circumstances. It won’t be joining Newman either, with Palmer announcing a climate change convention immediately after the G20. Newman might have trouble getting a column in Palmer’s planned newspaper that he announced on Twitter last night: the ‘Australasian Times’.

But much more complicated and contradictory for PUP is its relation to coal exports in Australia. The RET is relatively small biscuits compared to coal mining. It could be a bigger deal if it places Australia on a high-renewables infrastructure path to decarbonisation. But environment minister Greg Hunt’s approvals of the GVK Hancock (Alpha Coal) mine in May, the Carmichael Coal mine project last month and of Clive Palmer’s China First mine in December last year are a disaster for the world’s efforts against climate change.

When the yearly exports of coal from these mines are burned, they will produce more than 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. Direct Action is aimed at reducing emissions by 131 millions tonnes per year. There is little point in Hunt pursuing a carbon reduction fund in the Senate when he is racking up coal mine approvals faster than voters are seeing their electricity bills rise.

What is the point of insisting on Direct Action in the wake of approving these mines? Given that the price of coal is rapidly diving, is there any point in selling coal either domestically or overseas? It is soon going to be difficult for a fossil fuel power plant to turn a profit, even if the coal was free.

Hunt has consistently run the argument of the now policy-bankrupt Bjorn Lomborg that selling coal to the Indians is a benevolent exercise, that why should we deny India the same lifestyle as a first-world country.

at the end of the day, this is about providing electricity to up to 100 million people in India (who) can be lifted out of poverty where there can be electricity for hospitals and schools

There are two problems with this: the first being that it is incredibly patronising in an economic sense. India’s new prime minister Narendra Modi has already pledged support for renewables before coal.

The second problem is a deeply historical one, and turns on a commonplace misunderstanding of the relation of first world empires to poorer nations. To argue that a first-world nation has a responsibility to poorer nations to lead them into the more destructive aspects of their economic activities is risible.

It is a disgraceful affront to populations of developing nations that have actually been underdeveloped by capitalism and the activities of imperialist states that go back hundreds of years.

Just as European capitalism under-developed Africa, South America and India, free market and state-controlled versions of carbon-intensive capitalism are about to underdevelop the entire planet.

That Hunt, following the arch-apologist for global warming, Lomborg, could attempt to trade-off the living poor, whose conditions are the legacy of an earlier phase of capitalist exploitation of labour and resources, with the prospect of condemning the entire population of the earth to an extinction-level event is of an order of profanity that will prove difficult to beat as we approach two, three and four degrees warming.

David Holmes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Hard Evidence: are migrants good for the economy?

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 15:18
Data, like fruit, can be selectively picked.Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Two studies about the impact of migration on the UK economy have been published which – if media reports are to believed – appear to contradict one another. A closer reading of these reports, however, shows that in fact they come to very similar economic conclusions. Even so, from reading them it is possible to suggest very different approaches to migration policy.

One study by Professor Robert Rowthorn led to headlines such as: “Further proof of damage created by immigration” and: “How mass migration hurts us all”.

The second study is a paper published by Lisenkova and others in the latest issue of the National Institute Economic Review which led to headlines such as: “Reducing immigration would slow UK economy and lead to tax rises” and: “Cameron’s migration cap would leave Brits poorer and taxes higher

So clearly the two reports have created space for some news outlets to pick their own truth. But what should we make of these different studies – and what do they contribute to our understanding of the impacts of migration on the economy?

Long-term impact on GDP

Both studies look at different annual net migration scenarios in the future to provide a picture of the long-term impact of migration on GDP and GDP per capita. The future level of net migration (that is, the difference between immigration and emigration) determines the size and age structure of the UK population.

As shown in Figure 1, if all other things remain equal, a higher level of net migration is expected to lead to a larger UK population (see complete explanation here).

But migrants also tend to be younger than the overall UK population and net migration is also likely to decrease the “dependency ratio” – an assessment of the number of people of working age compared to the number of people of retirement age. For instance, Rowthorn suggests that the dependency ratio will be 3.5 percentage points lower with annual net migration of 225,000 compared to an annual net migration of just 50,000 (Rowthorn defines the dependency ratio as the number of people 65 years of age and above per 100 persons aged 15-64). Figure 2 presents the 15-64 years old population of the UK under different assumptions about net migration.

Rowthorn suggests that, given a set of assumptions about employment rates and labour productivity: “GDP per capita is 3% higher in 2087 with high migration than with very low migration”.

The paper by Lisenkova and others looks at two scenarios: net migration of 200,000 and a lower migration scenario, which assumes that net migration is reduced by around 50% – close to David Cameron’s migration target of less than 100,000. They find that by 2060 GDP per capita would be 2.7% lower under the lower migration scenario.

Given the impact of net migration on the size and age structure of the UK population it comes as no surprise that both studies conclude that higher net migration will be associated with a higher level of GDP and GDP per capita.

Long-term fiscal impacts

The two studies also look at the long-term potential “fiscal implication” – the impact on UK government finances – of migration to the UK. Rowthorn also looks at the short-term fiscal impact of migration. Rowthorn scrutinises previous analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility which suggests that lower levels of net migration will lead to higher public sector net debt to GDP (see Figure 3). While Rowthorn does not contest the validity of the OBR estimates, he underlines the high levels of uncertainty related to these estimates.

The paper by Lisenkova and others suggest that under the lower migration scenario to “keep the government budget balanced, the effective labour income tax rate has to be increased by 2.2 percentage points”. Again, this refers to estimates for 2060.

Both studies come to similar conclusions – that lower levels of net migration will impose greater pressure on national debt over GDP. This effect is just the result of faster ageing of the population with lower levels of net migration, and corresponds with standard economic thinking.

Why the different implications? There is agreement on the general economic effects of higher net migration in both studies: that conclusion is that higher levels of net migration lead to higher GDP per capita and lower net debt as a share of GDP. Where there is disagreement is about the need or desirability of higher net migration.

Social impacts

The Lisenkova paper makes a straightforward economic argument from this about the benefits of migration in maintaining an age structure which supports economic growth. They do not venture into providing policy prescriptions and accept that their analysis does “not take into account the potential social impacts of higher migration”.

Rowthorn, however, emphasises that it may be preferable to have lower levels of migration even at the expense of faster ageing. He suggests that the levels of migration required to increased GDP per capita or lower future public debt are so high that their social impacts may outweigh the positive economic benefits. He points to potential problems such as overcrowding of public facilities (including schools, hospitals, roads), limited supply of housing and strain on natural resources (for example water) as additional reasons for preferring lower levels of migration.

This goes back to the essence of the migration debate in the UK. Economic estimates are important, but limited in that they cannot resolve important judgements about the type of society people want. These preferences over the “sort of place we want to live in” can drive people’s views and choices on migration just as much as the “pure” economic factors.

Carlos Vargas-Silva does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Don’t cut translations to fund English lessons for migrants

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 15:18
We've come here to speak English.PsyProblem, CC BY-NC-SA

A new report from the think-tank Demos is calling for a new national strategy for the way we teach English to migrants in the UK. Its researchers point to 850,000 people in the most recent census who said they could not speak English properly.

I broadly agree with the tenor of the report and its calls for wider changes in policy and funding of English for speakers of other languages (ESOL). It is these that need fixing, rather than the way professionals are actually teaching English to migrants. But I disagree with the suggestion that money could be saved from translating local council documents and spent on English teaching. This is simplistic and ignores the reality on the ground for many migrants.

Short-term funding

Many of the report’s insights echo what informed opinion in the field, such as the National Association for Teaching English and Community Languages to Adults, the Action for ESOL campaign, and NIACE have been saying for a number of years.

It highlights the damaging impact of funding cuts on ESOL provision, citing data released through a freedom of information request that found government ESOL funding had reduced 40% in the last five years.

Demos points to the prevailing short-termism of funding sources. In my experience this requires adult ESOL professionals to spend less time on core teaching and learning and more on writing funding bids. These either squeeze existing students into new “fundable categories” or abandon them for those who will attract funding.

I also applaud the recognition by Demos that so-called “soft outcomes”, such as increased confidence and self-esteem, should be recognised when it comes to a national strategy. This could help to broaden the aims of adult English-teaching beyond a narrow focus on access to work, important though that is.

Don’t cut back from translation

But I disagree that money can be saved to spend on adult ESOL by cutting back on translation services. This assumes that there is a population of people happy to rely on translation services and never learn English. I have invariably found migrants want to learn, although they face many practical barriers.

Translation services can only ever be a partial solution to communication problems, but they are an essential one. They need to be provided in complement to strong English language teaching provision. This must both reach out to the most isolated and disadvantaged, as well as stretching and enabling achievement at the other end of the spectrum. This achievement can be economic, but also academic and civic.

Many of the points Demos make are interconnected. The increasing use of volunteers to teach English to migrants is a direct consequence of the shrinking of provision due to funding cuts. I started my professional life in adult ESOL in the mid 1970s organising a volunteer teaching scheme so I know something of this at first hand. There is a sense of déjà vu in the present situation.

Quality language learning for all

There are frequent complaints in the report that the ESOL system is not fit for purpose. Demos points to a 2008 Ofsted report that found questionable quality in around half of providers.

Yet in the mid 2000s I directed the adult ESOL Effective Practice Project which found many examples of excellent, inspiring provision. Let’s hope this report can trigger commitment from the major parties to reform the policy and funding regime and bring adult English teaching to migrants out of a hand-to-mouth existence.

It’s also important to recognize that the 850,000 potential ESOL learners are not the only people in our country who have problems with language learning. Many mainstream, English-speaking citizens would struggle to put together two words in a language not their own, even if their life depended on it.

The report points at times to the need to make multilingualism a resource not a problem. To me, this calls for a recognition that our national language problem is bigger than integrating those who don’t speak English. To recognise this would call for not a National ESOL Strategy, but a National Language Strategy in which access to English would be an essential – but not the only – component. If one of the major parties were to pick up this challenge it would be truly visionary.

Mike Baynham receives funding from AHRC and ESRC. He has also received funding in the past from the National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy.

The Premier League's video clamp down is another struggle to monetise social media

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 15:17
Copyright not optional.Peter Byrne/PA Wire

As a new football season starts, the Premier League has stated its intent to stop fans from posting unofficial videos of goals online. The Premier League has pointed out that the videos of goals and other match highlights, which get shared on social media, is copyrighted and therefore illegally uploaded.

This isn’t a new problem – the internet has changed viewing habits forever. The increasing number of people watching live broadcast events through mobiles and tablets, especially among certain demographics, is a rising issue that broadcasters must address. But as well as presenting them with a challenge, it also presents advertisers and broadcasters with an opportunity to capitalise on the changing market and habits of viewers.

The 2014 FIFA World Cup broke online streaming records around the world with 5.3m unique viewers watching at peak viewing. So, the challenge for broadcasters is how to maintain a compelling media experience, while monetising the events to get the return on the investment that they have paid for the TV and online streaming rights of these games.

Broadcasters have their own mobile apps and websites where subscribers can officially stream services. But they are competing with alternative social media platforms like Vine, Snapchat and the established Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, where members of the public can upload content illegally that’s free for the non-paying public around the world to watch. And so broadcasters are trying to muster their contractual and legal clout to manage the violations of recorded videos posted on websites such as Vine.

The issue is an old one in internet terms of where copyright material that is shared through a social media or a search engine is violating the original broadcasters terms and conditions. You can post links to official streams and you can list and search video clips, but this breaks down when copies can be put on sites such as Vine that specialise in momentary clips for sharing.

But does a short 15 or 30-second looping clip constitute streaming a game or providing a video service? It’s difficult to see – especially from a fan’s point of view – how this is intended to violate copyright, rather than the social network experience it is typically intended to foster.

It’s ironic that where the digital world, which disrupted the traditional business model, is now in effect disrupting itself through alternative digital platforms competing with each other for for the online viewing and social media public.

The two root issues that remain are the open nature of social media platforms and the challenge this creates for copyright content that prevents its widespread usage. Another is the impact of virtual business where, like the Uber taxi service, the digital world can empower anyone to be a broadcaster or a business without any physical or commercial attachment.

The monetisation model in the digital world is potentially at odds with the traditional model that was based on legal contracts. Traditionally, content rights were negotiated and paid for upfront by a media company that then controlled that content. The new online world, however, is driven by the here and now, with real-time social interactions being exchanged “live”.

It’s a world of difference in many ways from an upfront and static contract model that seeks to direct viewing traffic towards itself. This kind of managed viewing control by providers of content is a different social dynamic to the control given to social media consumers who often see it as their right to choose who they contact and what they want to see and do – with no binding contracts.

Mainstream broadcasters will struggle to prevent this so long as their sites are not integrated with social media websites. The problem and opportunity is that the barriers to entry for providing and capitalising on these services and switching between them are very low in the cyber world. Consumers can just click to another platform as and when they like.

But we are still in the early days of the multimedia social world and these battles will rumble on as digital platforms seek to own parts of the user experience and the monetisation models from this. Meanwhile traditional media will seek to maintain as much ownership and rights as possible.

Mark Skilton does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

A third of sunscreens could have overestimated SPF protection – it's a scandal

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 15:17
Throwing in the towel. Mark Probst, CC BY-SA

Despite the many awareness-raising campaigns on the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation, a walk along any tourist beach will tell you just how many sun worshippers continue to soak up the sun excessively. And despite our use of all kinds of sunscreens, the statistics show a constant increase in the number of skin cancer cases. Why?

Things that protect us against harmful rays from the sun include clothing such as hats and longer sleeves and sunglasses. But topical sun protection from sunscreens is ideal as it allows us to be more free.

These products only appeared on the market in the 1930s and were promoted as tanning aids. The formulation of sunscreen products is complex and the first ones were especially flawed – because the UV-filters were used at low concentrations and their effectiveness was limited in UVB light range. Since then, the history of topical sun protection has been marked by milestones, or scandals as we could call them. Let’s not forget the Bergasol affair in the 1980s. Products were formulated with bergapten, a photo-sensitising molecule that is found in bergamot essential oil and other oils, but which had no place whatsoever in this type of product because mixed with light it can cause skin irritation.

Today we have the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) to guide us. SPF is a universal indicator that testifies to the effectiveness of a product against UV (which includes UVA and UVB wavelengths), which can penetrate and damage the skin and cells. SPF is worked out by putting on a thick layer of a suncream on in the lab and working out the difference it makes based on a multiplier – so if unprotected skin took 15 minutes to burn, a sunscreen with an SPF of 10 would take 150 minutes, and SPF30 would take 450 minutes.

This method of calculating protection is voted for overwhelmingly by manufacturers. Apart from the clear ethical shortcomings of this method (it does, after all involve irradiating volunteers for not insignificant periods or doses), we’ve discovered and revealed a certain number of potential biases. We’ve tested many products each year since 2000 and would say that about a third have much less protection than their SPF would suggest.

Concerns have previously been raised about SPF performance out in the real world and a recent investigation by Which? consumer magazine found three suncreams – Piz Buin, Malibu and Hawaiian Tropic – had lower protection than the SPF30 on the bottle.


We’ve highlighted that a certain number of ingredients found in suncreams including allantoin (a molecule found in Symphytum officinale, a plant more commonly known as comfrey but which is now mostly synthetic), bisabolol (found in chamomile, also now mostly synthetic), and liquorice extracts, are likely to inhibit the appearance of redness due to their anti-inflammatory properties. As redness is a clinical sign that is used to determine SPF under current procedures, it can result in an overestimation of the SPF of products that contain these molecules. Using products high in anti-inflammatories can give a false sense of security – your DNA is still being damaged, you just don’t see or feel it happening.

We have also demonstrated that the majority of filters approved in sunscreen products, including salicylates, benzophenones, PABA by-products, cinnamates and octocrylene, are highly anti-inflammatory. The problem is that despite this UV-filters are an essential ingredient for sunscreens to work.

Our current work has been looking at how long these anti-inflammatory effects last and we’ve found that this can be several hours. It’s worth bearing in mind that any molecule that is likely to inhibit the development of the redness, regardless of what other action it has, will plays a part in overestimating SPF using current measures.

Another major problem with topical sun protection comes from mineral products – titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide – whether or not they are organic. Despite some claims, high SPF factors in sunscreens (50, 50+) can’t be obtained with this type of sunscreen. Again the difference is due to an anti-flammatory effect and people who use these type of products for high SPF won’t be well protected.

A better way to test?

Instead, we think there should be a new standardised system of testing products based on chemical testing in the lab that only considers the optical properties of filters. This is the only way of quantifying the real effectiveness of sunscreen products.

Sunscreen products are different from all others; they can actively protect against skin cancers. And crucially, we have trust in them so happily stay out in the sun longer, thinking they’re working as well as they claim. It would therefore be appropriate that they return to being classed as a medication, as they are in the US. The marketing of ineffective sunscreen products today will have to take a share of the responsibility in skin cancers – we can’t leave this heavy responsibility to the cosmetics industry.

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

Here's how you find out who shot down MH17

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 15:17
The evidence is out there, waiting to be found.Igor Kovalenko

More than a month has passed since Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed with the loss of all 298 lives on board. But despite the disturbances at the crash site near the small town of Grabovo, near Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, it is still possible to piece together what happened.

In the immediate aftermath it was reported that the aircraft had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile. Shortly after the crash Igor Girkin, leader of the separatists, took credit for the incident, claiming his troops had shot down what was assumed to be a Ukranian military transport. After learning it was a civilian airliner he later denied any involvement, claiming his forces had no weapons capable of shooting down an aircraft flying at 33,000ft, as MH17 was.

In the weeks since there have been claims and counterclaims about which side had access to one of the Buk M1 missile launchers thought to be responsible for downing the plane. It’s possible to get nearer the truth of what happened to MH17 by combining evidence from four elements in play the moment the airliner came down: the air traffic control secondary radar systems that monitor the airspace over eastern Ukraine, the flight data recorder (“black box”) carried by the Boeing 777 aircraft, the specification of the Buk M1 missile system, and the wreckage of MH17.

The view from air traffic control

The main source of information about aircraft for air traffic controllers is secondary surveillance radar (SSR). This is a link between an interrogator unit on the ground and a transponder on board an aircraft. The interrogator will connect to any aircraft within its range at least once every four seconds. The aircraft responds with flight information, such as the aircraft’s identification, position coordinates, course, and height.

The still-contested area in which MH17 came down. Author provided

This information is processed, and correlated with the results of any primary surveillance radar – the objects detected by beaming out radio waves and recording what is reflected back by solid objects.

This is displayed to the en-route controller, in this case the staff monitoring Dnipropetrovsk flight information region eastbound, in Ukrainian government-controlled territory. This system will be able to locate a flight’s position to within 500 metres, given (in this case) MH17’s cruising speed of around 600 knots. All this coordinate tracking data will be recorded and stored for investigation purposes. It is highly unlikely that it could have been tampered with.

Data within the black box

A flight data recorder (FDR), commonly referred to as the black box, records all instructions sent to any electronic systems on the aircraft. It records flight characteristics such as altitude, speed, commands sent to the engines or control surfaces of the plane such as the rudder, ailerons and flaps, and streams of data from many sensors and on-board computers, including GPS coordinates accurate to within 10 metres.

Usually mounted in the aircraft’s tail section where it is more likely to survive a crash, the recorder is updated several times a second throughout the flight. This information is crucial for accident investigations and to determine safety issues.

The flight data recorder, a crucial part of any investigation. AlliedSignal Aerospace

It would be virtually impossible to tamper with the FDR data as it is encoded, and follows a given sequence using set patterns that would reveal any attempt to alter it. Using the black box data it will be possible to pinpoint the coordinates of MH17 when it suffered the catastrophic event to within ten metres, and to demonstrate that this was not caused by any mechanical or electrical failure, or pilot error.

The missile system

Intelligence reports have indicated that the missile that brought down MH17 was a Russian Buk M1 Self Propelled Air Defence System, also known by its NATO reporting name of SA-11 “Gadfly”. Introduced in 1979, its latest updated version is known as the SA-17 “Grizzly”. Both are used by Russia, most of the ex-Warsaw Pact countries, and other nations to which Russia exports weapons.

A Buk M1 surface-to-air missile launcher .:Ajvol:.

The SA-11/SA-17 is mounted on tracked vehicles, making it easy to move. Importantly its radar is capable of IFF – that is, identifying an aircraft as friend or foe, or whether it is a commercial – using the same secondary radar transponder as air traffic control. However, the designers also implemented a backup mode that allows missile targeting to operate autonomously, bypassing the IFF safety feature. Used like this, the radar will show all targets in range. In this case, the operator selects one just presses the fire button. Only very basic training is required to operate the system like this.

The missile has a range of 42km (26 miles) and an operational ceiling of 25km (82,000ft). With a speed of 850 metres/sec (1,900mph), the missile could reach MH17 from launch in 11.5 seconds. The warhead is fitted with a proximity fuse which activates 100-300ft (30-90 metres) from its target. This fires a fragmentation charge which results in thousands of pieces of shrapnel accelerating in an spread pattern. The SA-11 is reputed to have a kill rate of 95%, so it is more than capable of downing MH17 even with virtually untrained operators.

The story told by the wreckage

The crash site covers an area of around 20 square kilometres near Grabovo, although larger parts of the aircraft are found in a much smaller area. There is little argument that the plane was shot down, so the investigation will focus on the shrapnel damage. By examining the position and angle of holes in the aircraft’s fuselage it will be possible to tell the approximate direction and angle from which the missile hit the airliner. With this information, investigators will be able to trace the reverse trajectory to locate the missile’s point of launch to within 100 metres.

The fuselage will be peppered with holes and fragments, which will aid investigators. Author provided

Chemical residues on pieces of shrapnel found among the wreckage will confirm whether the warhead was a SA-11/SA-17 missile. And metallurgy analysis of the shrapnel may even yield important information on the specific production batch – does it match the batch of systems supplied to Ukraine, or is it from another unknown batch, potentially from Russia?

Assembling the Evidence

So pull all the evidence together – what do you have?

  • The data from air traffic control’s secondary surveillance radar provides MH17’s course and coordinates to within 500 metres.
  • The flight data recorder can show whether or not a component or systems failure, or pilot error that caused the loss, and can pinpoint the aircraft’s position even more accurately.
  • The specifications of the SA-11/SA-17 missile launcher demonstrates that it is quite capable of destroying an airliner, and that it can if necessary be operated by an inexperienced team, without the safety of an IFF-capable radar.
  • Evidence gathered from the wreckage will be able confirm whether the missile was an SA-11/SA-17, and help pinpoint the location of the missile when it was fired, and perhaps even confirm if the system was exported abroad or produced for Russian use.

The evidence is there to be found, and once all of it is available, it will provide a compelling case against whoever fired upon and brought down flight MH17.

David Stupples does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The truth is, Scandinavia is neither heaven nor hell

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 15:16
Keep smiling for the camera.Håkan Dahlström, CC BY

Earlier this year, British travel writer and resident of Denmark, Michael Booth, riled Guardian readers with a provocative article claiming to dispel the myth of Scandinavia as the perfect place to live. Many are now confused. Is everything we believed about the social ideals of Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland a lie? Well, not entirely but we’re not all drunk serial killers either.

Based largely on his book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle, Booth’s “revelations” about the rot eating away at Scandinavia’s welfare societies were meant to “correct the imbalance” of the recent utopian idealisation of the Nordic countries in the British media.

It’s true that the Nordic countries have received unprecedented good press in the UK. This is partly due to a a trend that emerged in the early years of the 21st century for assessing the well-being of nations not according to their GDP but other, more human factors. Nordic countries consistently come out top.

In the 2005-2011 Gallup World Poll, Denmark ranked first for happiness, followed by Finland and Norway. The OECD’s Better Life Index of 2012 had Norway, Sweden and Denmark among the top five nations and the 2014 State of the World’s Mothers report from Save the Children, assessing the well-being of mothers and children world wide, had five Nordic countries in the top six. Meanwhile, lifestyle magazine Monocle’s Quality of Life survey named Copenhagen the most liveable city in the world for the third time in 2014.

But these figures are starting to be undermined by people in many different quarters. If life is perfect in Scandinavia, why are there so many dramas and books that depict Nordic societies as rampant with corrupt institutions, alcoholics, dysfunctional families and men who are violent against women? These dark depictions can’t come out of a clear blue Nordic sky.

While the Killing and The Bridge are new though, interest in the rotten states of Scandinavia is not. The perception of the Nordic countries abroad has swayed between two extremes for nearly a century.

In 1936, the American journalist Marquis Childs published the international bestseller Sweden: The Middle Way. Written in the time of the Great Depression, Childs viewed the Swedish Social Democratic compromise between liberal capitalism and state communism as a pragmatic model that could guarantee full employment, social security and equality without jeopardising economic development and democratic institutions.

In the 1970s, the image changed radically with the British journalist Roland Huntford’s book The New Totalitarians. To Huntford, Swedes, dominated by the Social Democratic party for 40 years, had come closer to living in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World than the Soviets. Even Sweden’s otherwise much admired sexual liberalism became an expression of totalitarian state control in Huntford’s eyes. High suicide rates and heavy taxation were other less than perfect trends he sought to highlight.

The utopian view has since made a come-back but perhaps that is less of a reflection on Scandinavia and more of the rest of the world. Global recession and austerity have taken their toll across Europe in recent years and people are starting to look around for better models. When fearing the corrosion of well-being and social cohesion, it is natural to seek consolation elsewhere, even if that elsewhere only exists in the imagination (as any good utopia) or in surveys that lack any form of cultural context.

Defending his dystopian counter-narrative against thousands of critical comments on The Guardian, Booth explained that his portrayal of jingoistic Danes on anti-depressants, lethargic Norwegians drunk on oil wealth, and gun-toting, binge-drinking Finns is largely based on what Scandinavian experts themselves have reported. That said, you could equally argue that he has carefully selected data to prove a predetermined narrative.

Booth’s book does prove an important point regarding perceptions of the Nordic countries, though. Scandinavians are predominantly satisfied with their lives but they are not utopians. Nor are they blinded by their success. They might not experience social problems on the same scale as people in other countries but they still fiercely debate what issues they do have. These include the purpose of the welfare state in the 21st century and how large it should be.

The Nordic countries are real places – not utopias – and as many other countries they struggle to overcome social divisions as they adjust to changing global realities. Austerity measures and welfare reforms have been implemented across the nations and it seems no entitlement previously guaranteed by the welfare state is off the table when it comes to cuts. A rise in mental illness may be the first severe consequence of widening socioeconomic gaps in the Nordic countries – just the kind of problem that is proving so fascinating to lovers of dark Nordic crime stories abroad.

Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Inside Donetsk, a city at war, while the jaw-jaw over Ukraine continues

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 15:16
Devastation: the remains of Donetsk's history museum.EPA/Sergei Ilnitsky

The past few days have seen another round of the seemingly endless cycle of escalation and de-escalation that has characterised the crisis in Ukraine for several months. The Ukrainian government has claimed military successes against separatist rebels and Russian forces. The Kremlin has denied any incursion into Ukrainian territory, which was, however, confirmed by NATO and journalists.

Russia, in turn, has achieved official recognition from Ukraine that it’s convoy is solely humanitarian. Similar assurances were apparently accepted by US, following a phone conversation between the US and Russian defence ministers.

The separatists in eastern Ukraine, meanwhile, lost further ground, but also claim to have had their ranks and capabilities boosted by the arrival of Russian-trained fighters and equipment. At the same time, some Russians among the rebel leadership were replaced by locals in an apparent further factionalisation of separatists.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis seemed to make some progress amid both conciliatory and confrontational statements from all sides. Ukraine, on the one hand, played down the significance of its military confrontation with a Russian convoy earlier in the week. Western leaders appeared moderately optimistic about a meeting at the weekend in Berlin between the Ukrainian, Russian, French and German foreign ministers. The hope for a more sustained political process, building on an earlier meeting in Normandy last month, was also echoed by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.

On the other hand, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, in a phone call with German chancellor Angela Merkel, called for an end to Russian arms supplies to the separatists. In another phone call with the US vice president, Joe Biden, the two leaders agreed that continuing Russian military activities at the Ukrainian border were inconsistent with its declared humanitarian intentions. The Ukrainian foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, meanwhile urged NATO and the EU to supply arms to Ukraine.

So it appears that at present all sides may be willing to give a political solution another try while at the same time hedging their bets if the political process does not get off the ground or stalls as on so many previous occasions.

Russia in the box seat

Even if a political process eventually gets off the ground, Russia will be in a much stronger negotiation position. The Kremlin has clearly demonstrated its resolve to have its way in Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea and the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine are, however, only one side of the coin.

Jaw-jaw: foreign ministers from Russia and Ukraine meet with their counterparts from Germany and France. EPA/Maurizio Gambarini

Moscow’s current aid efforts also need to be considered – they clearly offer some hope for improving an increasingly desperate humanitarian situation which neither Kiev nor its Western allies seem to be able or willing to address. The Russian aid convoy will be welcomed by civilians in eastern Ukraine, but it will also reinforce the region’s alienation from Kiev and its population’s perception of Russia as a powerful patron of its interests.

Where Moscow can act swiftly and decisively, switching easily between humanitarian gestures and military threats, Western capitals are far more constrained. Decision-making within NATO and the EU is notoriously difficult because it requires consensus among countries with different political, economic, and military priorities and different perspectives on how to deal with Russia.

The Western approach to the crisis is further complicated by the way in which the Ukrainian government has handled the situation over the previous days and weeks. On August 11, the government appealed to the civilian population of Donetsk and Luhansk to leave both cities ahead of an intensification of Kiev’s anti-terrorist operation. With roughly two-thirds of the population of Donetsk remaining in the city, civilian casualties are inevitable.

Nor does the Ukrainian government provide much by way of relief to people displaced by the conflict, despite the fact it is spending around $3-4m a day on its anti-terrorist operation. A shelter in the building of the railway station in Kiev, for example, is nothing more than a space without furniture, access to water, food or medical assistance.

Most of the assistance is provided by volunteers and religious organisations, rather than by the government. By contrast, Russia has already found shelter for some 500,000 refugees from the conflict in eastern Ukraine, offering them free housing, financial assistance, and medical services.

While it is easy to dismiss these Russian efforts as cynical propaganda and a response to a crisis wholly or mostly created by the Kremlin, Ukrainian civilians who live in fear of Kiev’s military operation – or are in receipt of much more effective Russian humanitarian assistance – are unlikely to see a Moscow-sponsored conspiracy at work here.

Outwardly, the situation in Donetsk appears more under control than in Luhansk where people have lived without access to water and electricity for more than ten days. Municipal authorities in Donetsk, by contrast, are still effectively running the city’s services from public transport to gas, water and electricity, while also managing repairs to critical infrastructure destroyed as a result of the conflict.

That said, Donetsk also is a city in a state of war. The National Bank of Ukraine has closed all its departments in Donetsk, putting a stop to any operations with commercial banks. Any state funding of public hospitals has been stopped as well. As a consequence, living conditions for socially vulnerable groups: the elderly, children and the sick, has become particularly difficult. The rebels, too, have not helped the situation: there is a curfew in place, a (rebel) military prosecutor office has been created, alcohol has been prohibited and the death penalty has been introduced for, among others, espionage and looting.

With the battle lines thus drawn locally and internationally, neither a political nor a military solution are likely anytime soon. Russia needs to do very little to sustain the current stalemate and the West is unlikely to push hard enough against Moscow’s approach. The Ukrainian government is too weak to defeat the rebels and take Donetsk and Luhansk quickly without a severe toll in civilian casualties, although Kiev may be tempted to launch a serious offensive ahead of August 24 – which is Independence Day in Ukraine.

Stefan Wolff receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK, the NATO Science for Peace Programme, and the EU's Jean Monnet Programme.

Tatyana Malyarenko does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Harry Potter did help shape the political culture of a generation

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 15:15
Some well-thumbed political tracts. Mike Chaput, CC BY-NC-SA

The idea that entertainment has an effect on our politics might seem ludicrous to some. Many would scoff at the notion that the Star Wars saga might have influenced the political socialisation of Generation X. Or that the music that the baby boomers listened to played a supporting role in the development of that generation’s politics.

And perhaps, most ridiculous of all, is the idea that JK Rowling’s immensely popular tale of the boy-who-lived could have played a role in the political development of that generation, the Millenials. Let alone an election result. But this is exactly what some recent research of mine indicates.

I found empirical support for the idea that the Harry Potter series influenced the political values and perspectives of the generation that came of age with these books. Reading the books correlated with greater levels of acceptance for out-groups, higher political tolerance, less predisposition to authoritarianism, greater support for equality, and greater opposition to the use of violence and torture. As Harry Potter fans will have noted, these are major themes repeated throughout the series. These correlations remained significant even when applying more sophisticated statistical analyses – when controlling for, among other things, parental influence.

I’m not saying, Rita Skeeter like, that “Harry Potter helped Obama get elected” or that “Harry Potter books brainwashed millennials”, as much of the coverage of my research indicated. It’s of course much more nuanced than this. And in a world where consumption of entertainment media is escalating, allowing many to avoid news coverage altogether in favour of fun, thinking about this is more important than ever.

More recognisable than any political logo. Dave Catchpole, CC BY-SA

Who is rational?

Scepticism of the notion that our entertainment consumption shapes our political perspectives only has traction if you think that we arrive at our political views rationally. And there’s a long record of research in multiple disciplines (psychology, sociology, and political science to name a few) that thoroughly debunks the notion that we acquire political values and attitudes through a rational process.

And research into how we immerse ourselves in stories has demonstrated that we do not process ideas in entertainment the same way we process information – we react on a more emotional level, at a distance from real world facts.

The next scornful retort is that people’s choice of entertainment will reflect their pre-existing political views. But the argument of selective exposure – that we only consume media that is congruent with our existing beliefs – is less applicable to entertainment than it is to overly political media.

We’re often drawn to stories for reasons that may have nothing to do with our views. This may be its popularity, attention given to it in the media, critical reviews, special effects, advertising, boredom, inadvertent exposure when we have little choice – the reasons go on. And once we’re immersed in the book, TV programme, film or whatever, once we’ve come to identify with certain characters we are, as communications scholars have demonstrated, likely to internalise the lessons of the narrative, and emulate the qualities of those with whom we identify.

Selective exposure is also complicated by the fact that the politically relevant lessons of a narrative or the qualities of fictional characters are not always evident early on in the story. And they may evolve throughout it. Take that of Darth Vader, a cultural icon of evil, for example – he turns out to still have some good in him at the end. Or there’s the Cylons of the recent reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, who evolve from genocidal robots to a form of intelligent life deserving acceptance and tolerance.

Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards is a dark take on US politics. EPA/Pete Marovich/Pool

When we’re consuming entertainment stories it’s likely that we’re more susceptible to politically relevant messages – we’re relaxing, having fun, our political “guard” is down. Indeed, most people are largely unaware of the politically relevant content of that which they watch or read because they are not looking for it. And certain politically relevant messages are so ubiquitous throughout our culture that they become invisible to us. Take the overwhelmingly positive portray of guns in US media – it’s incredibly rare to see a hero without a gun.

Selective exposure is also less likely to occur among younger media consumers who have yet to fully form their political views. This is a point especially applicable to the media teenagers consume, like the Harry Potter series.

A great volume of research has been devoted to the effects of entertainment on social phenomena such as violence, sex, smoking and drinking. In this light, perhaps it doesn’t seem so ridiculous to give some attention to how entertainment shapes our politics. There have been a handful of published pieces that demonstrate the role of entertainment media, but more empirical research is needed.

In addition to Harry Potter, I also have preliminary results from two other recent studies. One, an experiment that found that exposure to different types of science fiction and fantasy villains affected attitudes about criminal justice. And another that found that exposure to Game of Thrones and House of Cards reduced the tendency to believe in a just world.

There are certainly methodological issues with teasing out entertainment media effects, but those difficulties have not stopped researchers on other similarly sticky subjects. We need to consider the role of entertainment media in the development of political perspectives, in how citizens see their governments, leaders, and policies. This is something that is ever more important in our era of unlimited media choice.

Anthony Gierzynski does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Is falling recycling rate due to 'green fatigue', or is there just less waste to recycle?

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 15:15
The march of the wheelie bins.Anthony Devlin/PA

It’s been suggested that a recent fall in recycling rates is due to green fatigue, caused by the confusing number of recycling bins presented to householders for different materials. Recycling rates would rise, according to waste recycling firm Sita UK which carried out the survey, if the process was simplified, for example by collecting all waste for recycling together (known as co-mingling).

But the same survey also found that reduced glass and paper consumption had led to a drop in the volume of those materials collected. Perhaps this is the underlying issue and not “green fatigue”. It is well known that fewer people are buying newspapers and that many products previously sold in glass, such as milk, are now sold in plastic. Thus, lower consumption of products in previously widely recycled containers leads to less waste and may be causing lower recycling rates.

So is this really a cause for concern, if the drop in recycling rates is down to there being less waste generated in the first place? Well, yes, if this means the 2020 target of 50% household recycling is not met. In that case, the UK government will be fined, and this may affect householders indirectly through higher taxes or lower provision of public services. However, this concern may be misplaced and perhaps is more to do with the way the target is defined, rather than recycling levels.

The relationship between recycling and the waste we generate implies that a drop in the amount of waste produced or an increase in less-recyclable material will lead to a fall in recycling volumes and possibly a drop in the recycling rate. The former should be recognised as a welcome development, whereas the latter reflects changing patterns of consumption. This should prompt new innovation in the waste sector to deal with these types of waste. For example, by developing improved recycling methods or technology to deal with different types or combinations of materials.

So the current preoccupation with the headline recycling rate may be unhelpful. If the concern is the impact that excessive waste is having on the environment, then less recycling due to less waste being generated in the first place should not be a cause for concern. If the drop in recycling reflects changing consumption patterns, any penalties should be aimed at generating incentives to innovate in terms of packaging and new and better ways to deal with different types of waste. We need better analysis to identify the true causes of any change in recycling patterns, and the legislation – designed to drive greater recycling – should recognise why these two situations are different.

It may be that green fatigue is one cause among several. To the extent that a lack of information or sheer inconvenience exacerbates the problem, there is evidence to show that improving both these aspects does promote recycling – particularly among those whose attitude is not especially pro-environmental. On the other hand, if the only means to make recycling more convenient is through co-mingling, there is the valid point that the risk of contamination is high and levels of useful recycling may actually fall.

Research indicates that there are several factors that underpin the rate of recycling, from the way the service is provided, to whether recycling is considered a social norm among families, communities or groups banded by age, ethnicity or location. Perhaps the role for government in tackling any dip in the recycling rate is to highlight the prevalence of recycling among certain groups as a way to demonstrate the existence of that recycling norm – and by doing so, encourage it in others.

Lucy O'Shea received funding from the ESRC.

Design goes wild: boundary crossing in Feral Experimental

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 14:54
What happens when designers go off the rails? Feral Experimental shows the results can be stunning. Photo: Britta Campion. Feral Experimental

What happens when designers stray from familiar territory and go “feral”? This question has been at the forefront of curator Katherine Moline’s mind. She proposes answers in Feral Experimental: New Design Thinking, an exhibition coinciding with this year’s Sydney Design.

Moline’s long-standing interest in design has taken her around the world pulling together an exhibition of 17 projects. Feral Experimental challenges familiar associations of the expert, working within an idiosyncratic design culture – whether fashion, industrial products, interior or visual communications. Instead, the exhibition casts the designer as a skilled inventor, communicator and facilitator.

A new design agenda

These “feral” designers appear comfortable on the margins, in the fertile boundaries between disciplines. Working collaboratively, they’re capable of responding to the complexity of real-world situations and are keen to intervene.

The diversity of projects suggests the scope for contemporary design. There’s a project devoted to increasing mobility and quality of life for elderly people, An Empathic Adventure. Another feature is a participatory project gathering experiential data from Sydney bike riders, Veloscape. And there’s a 3D headset that generates the experience of inhabiting another person’s body in real time, The Machine to be Another.

An Empathic Adventure. Photo: Britta Campion. Feral Experimental

Each of the projects on display is an adventure into contemporary trends in design research.

Some address issues across the social world – and others confront local and global environmental challenges, offer creative provocations or propose future imaginaries. There are design games, devices, equipment and props as well as finished objects and video displays. Presented in this way, the design process appears animated, experimental and adaptive.

Boundary crossing for designers

The work in the exhibition is loosely grouped across participatory, co-design, speculative and exploratory experimentation.

Each approach has its own prescribed methods and objectives, and while they share common traits, there can be uneasy tension between the different schools of thought. When I spoke to her, Moline suggested that this was a healthy reflection of how design confronts problems in the world: where no single methodology can be applied as a fix-all. It’s also a likely outcome of designers mixing methods and drawing from diverse disciplines to inform their process.

German designer Benedikt Groß’s project Avena + Test Bed: Agricultural Printing and Altered Landscapes is an example of speculative design.

Groß’s work is speculative in the sense that it leads design away from industry norms and into an exploratory realm. In a field in Southern Germany an algorithm was programmed into a tractor creating a pixelated pattern to yield a combined crop. The project coincides with increased demand on farmers in the EU to grow crops for biogas/energy production and the model has the potential to ease some of the problems associated with monocultural agriculture.

Avena + Test Bed. Image courtesy of Benedikt Groß. Feral Experimental

While it has a potential application, the project also sets up a number of “what if” scenarios. This is typical of speculative design where an imaginary, futuristic dimension is important in generating debate and critical reflection about the positive and negative impositions of science and technology in shaping the world.

Designers are using participatory and co-design methods to collaborate more effectively. These methods take account of social context and lived experience. They draw stakeholders into the process of design and explicitly engage with the ethical issues of designing anything.

Community Centred Innovation: Co-designing for disaster preparedness by Dr Yoko Akama from RMIT, was developed in rural Victoria to assist communities at high-risk from fire. Through imaginative play and storytelling it draws out tacit knowledge in order to build stronger, more resilient communities. The methodology has applications across the world and has been adopted by emergency agencies in Australia.

Co-designing for disaster preparedness. A work by Dr Yoko Akama. Photo: Britta Campion. Feral Experimental

A project at the intersection of present and future technology is a brain-computer interface. Designed by the bio-informatics company EMOTIV, the sleek headset worn by users allows them to control objects – wheelchairs, medical and gaming devices, cars etc – through the power of concentrated thought. The headsets are now on the market and EMOTIV encourage users to apply this technology. Open-source software is available to anyone wanting to contribute to the creative and commercial applications of this incredible brain research.

Care of the possible

When I asked Moline what qualities make a “great” designer, she responded:

Someone who is wise to consequences in many dimensions at a specific moment and over time …

Moline’s exhibition is an invitation to consider the choices designers make and the wisdom they bring to approaching problems and exploring alternatives. The exhibition suggests that design is a deeply empathic process. Many of these projects demonstrate designers working with sensitivity to others, and a degree of humility, aware of the impact they have on people and other living systems.

New connections across art and design

Feral Experimental considers the intersections between art and design and the blurring boundaries between them. It’s clear there is a mutual exchange occurring across disciplines. It’s exciting too, to see the exhibition within the new campus of UNSW Art and Design. Previously the College of Fine Arts, the institution has become a space where design and art are taught together, mirroring trends internationally. To really get a sense of where design is heading in the 21st century, it’s well worth a look at Feral Experimental.

Feral Experimental: New Design Thinking is on display at the UNSW Galleries until August 30. Details here.

Tania Leimbach does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Ugly Mugs: 'an unacceptable breach of sex workers’ privacy'

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 14:44
The use of sex worker testimony by playwright Peta Brady has outraged interviewee Jane Green. Vixen Collective Archives

Peta Brady’s Ugly Mugs, which I saw in Sydney last week, opens with a gurney being wheeled onto the stage – on it, a sex worker who has died at the hands of a client and who, like the phoenix tattooed on her chest, rises from the ashes to tell her story. The play draws heavily from accounts of rape, coercion, and trauma recorded in a crime prevention initiative of the same name.

The “Ugly Mugs List” is a closed publication created by the former Prostitutes Collective of Victoria in 1986 to inform sex workers about abusive clients so that they might avoid victimisation.

Currently playing at Sydney’s Stables Theatre, Ugly Mugs launched at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre in May. The play has been celebrated by critics for giving voice to the victims and for forcing audiences to confront aspects of society we’d rather avoid.

Sex workers themselves have taken a different stance, raising important questions about the play’s appropriation of authentic narratives and, in turn, the double victimisation of an already marginalised community. This week their concern has received widespread media attention. In the wake of much criticism, Griffin Theatre has insisted that the testimonies in the play are “complete fiction”. Director Marion Potts has also responded, stressing that the production is “a work of fiction”.

I spoke to Jane Green, from Victoria’s Vixen Collective and the Scarlet Alliance, both sex worker organisations, about Ugly Mugs.

Leslie Barnes: Sex workers negotiate consent with the client at the start of every transaction. How was consent negotiated for the fictionalisation of these narratives? And how have sex workers in Melbourne and Sydney responded?

Jane Green: Brady used a closed resource intended for sex workers only as “inspiration” for Ugly Mugs – this is an unacceptable breach of sex workers’ privacy and trust. Ugly Mugs is an exploitation of sex workers by presenting stories of violence against them as entertainment to be consumed by the general public.

There was no consent negotiated at any point. Vixen Collective found out about Ugly Mugs when it was in rehearsals and immediately raised objections. Many others found out through social media later, and their anger has been profound.

Sex workers who saw the play in Melbourne were disturbed by the scene where “Working Girl” attends her own autopsy. They were also outraged to see a character read from the “Ugly Mugs” on stage. One sex worker from Sydney described it as “just another dead hooker on a slab” and was “glad to be near an exit”. Many have complained that the autopsy scene in particular caused them a great deal of distress.

Ugly Mugs at Sydney’s Stables Theatre. Vixen Collective Archives

LB: How have the concerns you’ve raised been received?

JG: Vixen Collective met with Malthouse while Ugly Mugs was in rehearsals, and we expressed a range of concerns, specifically about the “pity porn” narrative. We spoke to them about the breach of trust and warned that the show would perpetuate stigmas against sex workers. Our concerns were dismissed.

Scarlet Alliance met with Griffin Theatre in Sydney and emphasised the fact that the play was taking a closed resource before a public audience. Prior to this meeting Griffin Theatre made written enquiries to Scarlet Alliance about the NSW “Ugly Mugs”, then requested a copy in the meeting.

Sex workers have since raised the issue on social media, and Griffin Theatre released a statement in response. But they’ve still failed to respond to sex workers’ key concerns.

LB: What do you mean by “pity porn”?

JG: Ugly Mugs has left audiences and reviewers with false impressions of sex workers as one-dimensional victims, which is far from the reality of sex workers as whole people with agency.

Diana Simmonds, for example, concludes that we are: “utterly desperate for a dollar”.

The depiction of sex workers as helpless, desperate stereotypes rather than as workers fighting daily for recognition of their human rights and labour rights – this is “pity porn”.

LB: Brady has experience as a drug and safety outreach worker in St. Kilda. How has this experience shaped the play?

JG: Brady’s background is with the Salvation Army, an organisation that publically supports the decriminalisation of sex work but that continually portrays sex workers as victims in need of rescue. The fact that Brady has worked as a health outreach officer makes her abuse of “Ugly Mugs”– allowing non-peers to access it, publicising it, using it as inspiration on-stage – inexcusable.

LB: Some might say the play belongs to a tradition of didactic or political theatre insofar as it seeks to expose its audience to the brutalities sex workers – and women more generally – face. Would you agree that the play seeks to educate?

JG: Sex workers are the educators for and about our community. It’s impossible to educate others about a subject when you are not fully informed. Sex workers do not need non-sex workers to speak on our behalf. Marginalised groups do not appreciate non-peers, coming from a position of privilege, attempting to speak for them.

LB: Do you think it is inappropriate to dramatise or fictionalise sex work?

JG: Media and arts representations of sex workers – and of marginalised groups generally – often perpetuate stigma and discrimination.

Non-sex workers are speaking about a subject with no lived experience to inform what they say. This is why projects like Ugly Mugs are always inherently flawed. If members of a marginalised group are critiquing the way they are being represented in the media or the arts, listen.

Leslie Barnes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Five things parents can do to help young people escape ice

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 14:03
The market for the drug is controlled by criminals recruiting dependent users to act as their agents, who recruit yet more users to keep feeding their addiction. Don Hankins/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Recent news of former NSW premier’s daughter Harriet Wran being charged with murder is another illustration of Australia’s growing problem with the drug ice.

Wran, who is said to have been battling an ice addiction, has been charged with murder, attempted murder, and breaking and entering while armed with a knife, along with Michael Lee. Another man Lloyd Haines has been charged with murder, attempted murder, and aggravated break and enter.

Ice or crystal methamphetamine is becoming a problem in both rural and urban communities across Australia. There’s growing concern about the effects of ice addiction, crime, and violence, and people are at a loss for answers.

Of course, the police must play a role in addressing many of these issues, but families worried about their loved ones and the community must also play their part to fight this scourge.

A downward spiral

Crystal meth is more pure, cheaper, and more potent than other forms of methamphetamine. A flood of precursor chemical imports to feed local drug production in the last two years has been accompanied by increased local use and manufacturing.

And much overseas-produced (predominantly south-east Asia) crystal meth inevitably evades Customs and police. Despite huge seizures of the drug and precursors, it remains readily available and the price is little affected.

Alcohol, particularly binge drinking, causes many more deaths than ice. But there’s a bigger problem with illicit drugs: the market is controlled by criminals recruiting dependent users to act as their agents, who recruit yet more users to keep feeding their own addiction.

This brings huge pressure for expansion. And then there’s the threat of physical violence by users, or against their families if they cannot repay debts to ruthless suppliers.

The main problem, of course, is addiction. In the days after taking meth, with its hugely exciting sense of ecstasy, users become deeply depressed, desiring more of the drug. Some manage to control this desire, but many cannot and find themselves, over time, losing control of their lives. They need more and more of the drug as relief from the “low” dwindles.

Frequent users find themselves associating all the time with other users, usually dropping out of employment, education or normal social activities. Older people with depression may take ice to relieve their misery.

After prolonged heavy use, ice can badly damage the brain and precipitate aggressive psychotic behaviour, characterised by feelings of persecution that can lead to attacks on others.

Escaping ice

So what can families can do to stop the rise and rise of meth use in Australia?

  1. Reduce initiation into drugs by talking openly about them with children – in terms of health. Young people will always want to test the limits of authority. They need to see the drug as something that matters for their health and future lives, rather than giving in to something that will damage their brains.

  2. If your children have already tried the drug, urge them to see a doctor who can explain what is happening to their brain and offer options to get over the “low” that comes after use, which can be so devastating. Early help for sleeping can make a big difference.

  3. If they are under too much pressure to resist using and in trouble with mounting debt (if they’re stealing money from home, for instance) try to find out who is putting pressure on them. Confidentially contact the police, who will handle it with tact and anonymity.

  4. The police can rescue your child from ice’s downward spiral by tackling criminal pushers. If he or she has become heavily involved in trafficking, police intervention may save them before it is too late.

  5. Outstanding drug withdrawal services are available in each state of this country. They accept people referred by police or the courts. And they can arrange longer periods of rehabilitation, which may be vital. Family support is essential as people go through this process, and as they then try to rebuild their lives in the community.

State drug services are badly stretched, but we also have very capable doctors who are able to give advice. Many high schools have very sensible education programs encouraging young people to take care of their health.

Many people cling to the view that as drugs are illegal, everything should be fixed by the police arresting all users. But the police are fully aware that this approach has failed for over 50 years. In Australia, as in other countries, prisoners still use drugs.

Drugs are fundamentally a health issue, akin to alcohol addiction and binge drinking. Drug users need help, and treatment is available if accessed before the brain becomes seriously damaged. Both police and the community must play a part.

David Penington is the patron of the Penington Institute, which has a commitment to support evidence based harm-reduction for drugs and liaise with governments on illicit drug policy.

What goes on in the mind of a militant extremist?

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 13:39
Personal dispositions, feelings and beliefs may play a decisive role in explaining why people become radicalised.EPA/Stringer

So far, the ongoing discussions about radicalisation of extremists both at home and abroad have tended to emphasise its sociological aspects. It has focused on concepts such as the religion and social environments of individuals.

However, psychological accounts of extremist activity are infrequent, and it is often forgotten that only a few of those who hold strong ideological, political and religious views get involved in violent acts. Personal dispositions, feelings and beliefs may play a decisive role in explaining why people become radicalised.

Nastiness, grudge and excuse

Both conceptual analyses and empirical psychological studies that I have undertaken in the past have shown there are three main ingredients of militant extremist mindset.

The first of these ingredients is nastiness, as captured by strong endorsement of statements approving of violent acts, such as “killing is justified when it is an act of revenge”, or “we should respond to terror with terror”.

The second is grudge, which can take two forms. One is a direct reference to the “west”, shown in statements such as “terrorism in the form of unfair torture and execution without trial is carried out daily by many western countries” and “the west is degraded by its lack of dignified values, its AIDS epidemic, and its alcohol and drug addiction”.

Grudge’s other manifestation is a more generalised belief in the vile world: “evil has been re-incarnated in the cult of markets and the rule of multinational companies”.

The final ingredient is excuse. Although there are several forms of excuse, a common feature is justifications in people’s own minds of the nasty and violent things they tend to condone. In some cases it is with reference to God: “only one’s own God is the true God”. In other cases it is the trust in divine power: “at a critical moment, a divine power will step in to help our people”.

These three components were identified within the general populations in several countries, including the US, Serbia and China. These aspects of militant extremist mindset are generic in nature and are not focused on Islamic terrorism.

One does not need to become a terrorist if they endorse moderately all three ingredients of a militant extremist mindset. Even a strong endorsement of one or even two of the three components is unlikely to prompt a person to spring into action. However, high endorsement of all three components may lead a person to act. And if a group has high ratings on all three components, chances are that at least some members of the group may become potential recruits for a radical cause.

Although the measure may be useful for identifying groups prone to terrorism, no justification can be made to use the militant extremist mindset for profiling purposes.

What can be changed?

Grudge should be more open to change than either nastiness or excuse. Nastiness is a social attitude akin to dogmatism and authoritarianism that are known to be hard to modify.

Grudge is only partly a psychological internal state of the person and the other part – that is, the outside threat that causes unhappiness or fear – may be open to intervention. Education and media can play a crucial role.

Policy response

Governments can continue with campaigns to educate people of the benefits of immigration, equal opportunity for all citizens and the acceptance of diversity as well as the need for vigorous action to secure immigrants’ equal rights and promotion of the democratic process.

Countering “protest counter-culture” can be achieved by directly engaging in discussions with counter-culture groups, monitoring their development and, eventually as a last resort, using police methods if the situation gets too heated. These efforts, perhaps, should be increased.

Monitoring the level and changes in extremists' mindset

In a recent interview, retiring ASIO chief David Irvine said that a small number of people who have very distorted views that propel them towards violence leading to mass casualties are a real concern.

150 Australians, included Khaled Sharrouf, are believed to be fighting in Iraq and Syria. Twitter

Irvine added that the number of threats that ASIO is looking at, in terms of the numbers of people, has grown substantially with the Syrian conflict. Translated into the language of militant extremist mindset, this means that “grudge” among the people who already have an “excuse” has increased. Any policy response needs to account for the “nasty” ones within the protest counter-culture groups.

Prudent governments should monitor the extent and the strength of the militant extremist mindset in its population and especially among the young, including older adolescents and students. If this had been done in the past, the warning signs would have been detectable ahead of the realisation that 150 Australians are engaged in terrorist activities in Syria and Iraq.

Psychological research into radicalisation may complement political science and religious studies in countering terrorism in western society. Monitoring the strength of militant extremist mindset endorsements in different communities within the Australian population could be helpful.

Finally, it may be useful to establish regular polling practices that would gauge the extent of radicalisation over time and in reaction to terrorist-related political acts at home and globally.

Lazar Stankov does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Where's the real value in Tesla’s patent pledge?

The Conversation - Tue, 19/08/2014 - 13:31
Will anyone jump on the Tesla patent bandwagon?raneko/Flickr, CC BY

With the much-anticipated arrival next month of electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla’s Model S to Australian shores, it’s a good time to revisit Tesla’s pledge to freely share patents.

Elon Musk, co-founder and CEO of Tesla Motors, wrote a statement on the company’s blog entitled All Our Patent Are Belong To You back in June.

In a short announcement giving some context to the company’s decision, Musk claims that the electric vehicle industry as a whole would benefit from an “open source” approach towards innovation.

His pledge to the market that “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology” spawned headlines around the world, and purportedly armed those who are opponents of the patent system.

Commentators such as Eric Lane and Rajiv Rao were quick to suggest that Tesla is abandoning their patents and making them freely available – but the reality is quite the opposite.

There are ‘known unknowns’

Elon Musk at the reopening of the former NUMMI plant, now Tesla Motors. Steve Jurvetson/Flickr, CC BY

Musk has since been reported as saying the new policy is not an abandonment in favour of some notion of the public domain.

In fact, by allowing others to use its patented technologies, Tesla is suggesting that other electric vehicle manufacturing companies would also benefit from adopting this approach in the quest of developing a common technology platform, known as a cross license.

With cross licensing, manufacturers are essentially prevented from filing patent infringement lawsuits against each other and recently corporations have recognised those benefits.

Some of the world’s biggest information technology companies, including Google and Canon, last month banded together to form the License on Transfer (LOT) network, which describes itself as “a new kind of royalty-free cross-license”.

Tesla’s caveat “in good faith” also calls into question whether the patent pledge is a genuine gesture of goodwill. But this does not amount to Tesla “taking down the patent wall”, but rather an attempt to control the direction of the industry.

Tesla’s announcement is not entirely without precedent. Swedish carmaker Volvo patented the design for the V-type three-point safety belt in 1959 and made it freely available. The new safety belt soon afterwards became the industry standard for vehicles worldwide.

Sean Dreilinger, CC BY-NC-SA

There is further evidence of the use of this strategy in the past by companies such as IBM and Google in the information and communications technology sector, where such pledges have been used to ensure industry-wide adoption of interoperability standards.

Long live the patent system

Patents provide the owner (or patentee) exclusive rights to make, use or sell an invention covered by those rights for a limited period of time. Despite Tesla’s decision to make its old patents available, it does not stop the company from seeking patents for its newer technologies.

Keeping in mind that Musk was able to secure venture capital funding on the basis of securing patented technologies in the first place, it now seems that he can shift the strategic focus of those commercial assets towards building goodwill in the marketplace.

Musk on The Colbert Report: ‘We kind of want the car to be your friend.’

George Mason University law professor Adam Mossoff points out: “Tesla’s new policy is an example of Musk exercising patent rights, not abandoning them.”

The real value

We are yet to hear whether other manufacturers have taken up Tesla’s offer. But what we do know is Tesla will only continue to prosper if the entire industry succeeds.

In other words, it needs commercial partners to improve battery technologies, build charging stations and band together to change public perception.

The latest move by Tesla and its partner, Panasonic, will see the construction of the new Gigafactory, which will produce long range battery packs for Tesla’s electric vehicles.

In the end, the impact of Tesla’s announcement may depend on to what extent other players in the industry are willing to invest in manufacturing vehicles using Tesla’s patented (and patent-pending) technologies.

Tyrone Berger does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Updated: 20 August 2014/ Responsible Officer:  College Dean / Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications